French Poetic Realism Movement

Movement No 7 (7 All)

French Poetic Realism Movement and Poetic Realist Film List

Article 9min to read List 16 Films

Origin France
Most Active Years 1930 – 1945

Introduction to French Poetic Realism

French Poetic Realism is the movement in which the most effective methods emerge for the transition to a layered structure in narration in cinema. With the innovative narrative techniques used in poetic realist films, cinema has turned into an art discipline that can act liberally, politically and without rules when necessary. These new competencies made a significant contribution to the development of independent and world cinema, especially French cinema.
French Poetic Realism Movement

What is French Poetic Realism

The French Poetic Realism film movement emerged in the 1930s with the revolutionary developments made by French directors on technical elements such as mise-en-scene, clear depth of field, framing, field of view, pan, zoom, montage, and sound. Poetic Realist directors have succeeded in conveying the emotions and thoughts they want to convey to the audience in a multi-layered manner with the techniques they have developed, and have carried the narration competence of the cinema to the next level.

Origin of the Term Poetic Realism

Poetic Realism was a movement that found its place in literature and painting before cinema. By the 1930s, Poetic Realism re-emerged as a film movement in France.

The works given in Poetic Realism have a structure that allows more than one meaning to emerge with the methods they use. Artists convey more than one meaning to the audience, sometimes by using contrasts, and sometimes by presenting the expression with its literal meaning as well as a figurative form. The name of the film movement contains good examples of these two methods that are frequently used. The words poetic and reality are in opposition (or at least contradictory) to each other. Despite this contrast, poetry is an effective form of expression in order to figuratively express the facts expressed in literal sense.

Brief History of French Poetic Realism


The period in which Poetic Realism emerged was highly variable in terms of regional migration, economic collapse, and technological and artistic developments.

Under the influence of fascist governments in Europe, film producers, directors, actors and technical crews migrated to less authoritarian countries for decades. One of these countries was France. Especially the filmmakers from Germany and Russia were very critical for French cinema. Immigrant filmmakers brought the distinctive features of cinema movements and techniques in their own countries to France. For this reason, French Poetic Realism was heavily influenced by German Expressionism and Soviet Montage Cinema.

Another reason why France received immigration from other European countries was that it was one of the countries where the effects of the Great Depression, which started in America in 1929, were less common in Europe. Despite this, unemployment and inflation increased critically in the country in the first half of the 1930s. The French people and the French cinema industry came to the brink of economic and sociological collapse. As in other European countries, Hollywood movies dominated in France. The increase in the number of Hollywood films released since the 20s was hampering French film production. Hollywood movies were one of the reasons for the end of the French Impressionism movement. Hollywood films, which became widespread by attracting the attention of the audience, did not leave a space for French films in a short time, and reduced the box office of French films. Due to the box office success of Hollywood films, some of the French films that were aggressively demanded to be successful at the box office began to be influenced by Hollywood films. Hollywood films contained more promising and optimistic content for the future compared to the films of the country’s cinemas. For a long time, the audience preferred Hollywood movies to country cinemas in order to get away from economic and sociological troubles, even for a short time.

French cinema was dependent not only on film consumption but also technically on America and also on Germany. Despite developing many technologies for sound systems in the early 1900s, France had no patents. This problem, which was not very critical before silent cinema became widespread, became an important problem with the widespread use of silent cinema in the 1930s.


French Cinema, which has hosted many movements since the beginning of the 20th century, was going to use a new film trend as a solution tool to meet the demands of its audience and to get the cinema industry out of the bottleneck it was in.

Despite its lack of sound film patents, France was a home to Surrealism, Film d’Art, Impressionism and many other film movements. The competencies and experience created by producing films for these movements caused French filmmakers and actors to adapt to sound cinema in a short and effective way.

Many major film production companies collapsed due to economic reasons. The biggest companies of the period, such as Gaumont-Franco-Film-Aubert (GFFA) and Pathé, faced significant difficulties. By 1934, these two firms had largely ceased to function. During this period, film shooting in France began to be carried out mostly by independent filmmakers who were experiencing economic difficulties.

Independent filmmakers, in order to produce their works with lower budgets, reduced the use of sets and turned to shooting their films in real environments, under real ambient sound and light. In their films, independent filmmakers included the economic difficulties that their audiences are experiencing as well as their own. The films often featured themes appropriate to social realism.

The films of French filmmakers in the early 1930s, with the influence of the above components, caused the first works of Poetic Realism to appear in cinema. The short film À Propos de Nice (1930), shot by Jean Vigo in 1930, was considered the first and most characteristic film of Poetic Realism.

Main Period

Jean Vigo gave the first inspirational example of Poetic Realism with the movie À Propos de Nice. Jean Vigo made two more Poetic Realism films until 1934: Zero for Conduct (1933), L’Atalante (1934). Jean Vigo, who lost his father at an early age and grew up in a boarding school, died in Paris at the age of 29 due to septicemia due to tuberculosis. Zero for Conduct and L’Atalante were productions that determined important characteristics of Poetic Realism.

Poetic Realism was embraced and developed by important directors. Directors such as Pierre Chenal, Julien Duvivier, Fean Grémillon, Jean Renoir and Albert Valentin contributed significantly to the movement. The directors and their films were largely leftist.

The films featured the problems of the socio-economic lower classes. The use of sets and decor has been reduced compared to previous periods. Filming was usually done in real settings. In real environments, in real light and sound conditions, movies were fictionalized with real heroes in the society. The technical improvements weren’t just about ambient sound and lighting. Mise en scene creation, clear depth of field, framing, camera movements, long shots, wide-angle pans and many more revolutionary improvements were made. Technique and narrative method were completely combined.

Jean Renoir’s place was very important in the development of the technique. Renoir was born in Paris in 1894, the second son of Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. In 1913 he completed his studies in philosophy and mathematics at the University of d’Aixen-Provence. He fought for France in World War I, first as a cavalryman and then as a pilot. His occupation was pottery and ceramics. After his father’s death, he started a film company with his remaining assets and started to have his wife, Andrée Madeleine Heuschling, in his films. In addition to his education and military background, Renoir learned a lot from his father’s artistic background and his artistic circle. With his films, Renoir became the pioneer and best practitioner of the technical development of Poetic Realism. Andre Bazin has best described Renoir’s contribution to cinema:

“No one has grasped the true nature of the screen better than Renoir; no one has successfully rid it of the equivocal analogies with painting and the theater. Plastically the screen is most often made to conform to the limits of a canvas, and dramatically it is modeled after the stage. With these two traditional references in mind, directors tend to conceive their images as boxed within a rectangle as do the painter and the stage director. Renoir on the other hand, understands that the screen is not a simple rectangle but rather the homothetic surface of the viewfinder of his camera. It is the very opposite of a frame…”

“…Technically this conception of the screen assumes what I shall call lateral depth of field and the almost total disappearance of montage. Since what we are shown is only significant in terms of what is hidden from us and since there the value of what we see is continually threatened, the mise en scene cannot limit itself to what is presented on the screen. The rest of the scene, while effectively hidden, should not cease to exist. The action is not bounded by the screen, but merely passes through it. And a person who enters the camera’s field of vision coming from other areas of the action, and not from some limbo, some imaginary “backstage.” Likewise, the camera should be able to spin suddenly without picking up any holes or dead spots in the action.”
Andre Bazin on Jean Renoir (1971).

Another important name of the period was actor Jean Gabin. Jean Gabin acted in many of the most important films of the movement. With his performance, he became the most well-known artist of the Poetic Realism movement and the French cinema of the period: The Grand Illusion (1937), Port of Shadows (1938), Pépé le Moko (1937), The Lower Depths (1936), Le Jour Se Leve (1939), La Bête Humaine (1938) …

Poetic Realism was the movement that made the most mention of itself on a global scale among the French film movements whose influences continued in the same period.

End of French Poetic Realism

French cinema suffered a significant disruption in 1940, when Germany invaded France. Many left-wing directors and filmmakers had to immigrate to America directly or indirectly through other countries: Jean Renoir, Julien Duvivier, Jean Gabin…

Among those who remained in France were those who were tortured by the Gestapo: Harry Baur. Despite this, most of the filmmakers who remained in France continued to produce in a narrower space, albeit with some limitations. During this period, the Vichy government was established in Vichy, France. Philippe Pétain, one of the French Field Marshals of the First World War, was appointed Head of State. The Vichy Government set up committees in many areas, trying to overcome German pressure and protect France’s economic freedom. The Paris-based Committee for the Organization of the Cinematographic Industries (Comite d’organisation de l’Industrie Cinematographique) (COIC) was established to fund the survival of French cinema and to overcome German censorship. After the measures taken, the number of imported films decreased, while the number of French films gradually increased. However, very few good films could be shot because of the pressure of the Germans as well as the departure of important filmmakers from France. The French cinema, which was liberated from the German occupation in 1945, underwent a radical change and the French Poetic Realism movement came to an end.

Characteristics of French Poetic Realism

Poetic Realism films use literal, contrast and metaphorical meaning together. With this method, the depth of characters and events increases.

The characters and events in the movie are not usually in a rigid plot. They may not act within the story structure. They become free by acting in the opposite direction of the movements that are suitable for the story structure or in a completely different direction. This liberation takes place towards nature and the essence of being human.

Technically, camera movements, framing, use of out-of-frame space, long shots, blocking, clear depth of field are effectively part of the narrative. Camera editing is a very important factor in the creation of mise en scene.

Discontinuities, shifts in time and space are common in movies.

Movies give more place to the lower classes socio-economically with left views.

The Influences of French Poetic Realism

Poetic Realism films have dramatically changed world cinema:

Italian neorealism was largely based on French Poetic Realism. Films shot on socio-cultural background, the emergence of heroes from the society, the pessimistic nature of the films and their unhappy endings, and many more were moved from Poetic Realism to Neorealism.

Similar to Neorealism, American Film Noir has incorporated many elements from Poetic Realism. Additionally, female characters in Poetic Realism were recruited into Films Noir as femme fatales. Poetic Realism films were started to be named as French Film Noir because of the fact that Film Noir was inspired by so much Poetic Realism.

Especially the new narrative style and techniques that Renoir brought to the cinema were accepted all over the world, especially in the French cinema and the French New Wave, and began to be used frequently.

The fact that the literal, contrast and metaphorical derivatives of the narration created parallel layers of meaning in the scene caused a significant change in cinema. With this method, the expressiveness of the cinema significantly expanded and gained character.

Poetic Realist Film List

*Films sorted by release year, from newest to oldest.

  1. Children of Paradise (1945) Marcel Carné
  2. Children of Paradise 1945 poster

    Strolling indolently around the 1830s vibrant Parisian avenue called the Boulevard du Crime, the graceful and elusive courtesan, Garance, finds herself wrongfully accused of pickpocketing. But, amid a sea of jugglers, sideshow performers, streetwalkers, and crooks, the silently eloquent mime, Baptiste, comes to her rescue, only to hopelessly fall for…➝

    Trailer, info

  3. Lumière d’été (1943) Jean Grémillon
  4. Lumiere dete 1943 poster

    A shimmering glass hotel at the top of a remote Provençal mountain provides the setting for a tragicomic tapestry about an obsessive love pentangle, whose principals range from an artist to a hotel manager to a dam worker. Scripted by Jacques Prévert and Pierre Laroche, the film was banned from…➝

    Trailer, info

  5. Remorques (1941) Jean Grémillon
  6. Remorques 1941 poster

    Andre Laurent, the captain of a tugboat, married Yvonne ten years ago. She has a heart disease but does not want to tell him. She dreams he quits the job for they can live quietly. One night, during a sea rescue, he meets Catherine. She wants to leave her husband,…➝

    Trailer, info

  7. The Rules of the Game (1939) Jean Renoir
  8. The Rules of the Game 1939 poster

    On the brink of WWII, the record-breaking aviator, André Jurieux, safely lands at a small airport crammed with reporters, only to come face-to-face with his worst fear: the object of his desire, Christine, a blonde noblewoman and wife of the affluent Marquis de la Cheyniest, Robert, is not there to…➝

    Trailer, info

  9. Le Jour Se Leve (1939) Marcel Carné
  10. Le Jour Se Leve 1939 poster

    Francois, a sympathetic factory worker, kills Valentin with a gun. He locked himself in his furnished room and starts remembering how he was led to murder. He met once Francoise, a young fleurist, and they fell in love. But Francoise was gotten round by Valentin, a dog trainer, a machiavellian…➝

    Trailer, info

  11. La Bête Humaine (1938) Jean Renoir
  12. La Bete Humaine 1938 poster

    Jacques Lantier is a train engineer who is prone to violent seizures, a condition he attributes to his forefathers’ habit of excessive drinking. Roubaud is a train conductor on the same railroad that Lantier works on, married to the much younger Séverine. When Roubaud catches wind of his wife’s affair…➝

    Trailer, info

  13. Hotel du Nord (1938) Marcel Carné
  14. Hotel du Nord 1938 poster

    On the mournful bank of the meandering Canal St. Martin, at the cheap Parisian Hôtel du Nord, the dejected young lovers, Pierre and Renée, take a room, bent on fulfilling an unholy pact. Then, in the dead of night, a nearly fatal gunshot chills the bone to the marrow, splitting…➝

    Trailer, info

  15. Port of Shadows (1938) Marcel Carné
  16. Port of Shadows 1938 poster

    Life’s a rotten business, says Jean, a deserter who arrives at night in Le Havre, looking to leave the country. He lucks into civilian clothes, a little bit of money, a passport, and a dog, and he also meets Nelly, a 17-year-old who’s grown up too fast. She’s the object…➝

    Trailer, info

  17. Pépé le Moko (1937) Julien Duvivier
  18. Pepe le Moko 1937 poster

    Holed up in the labyrinthine trap of narrow cobblestoned streets and dark dead-end alleys in the bustling Casbah quarter of Algiers, the charismatic leader and elegant Parisian gangster, Pépé le Moko, is starting to reach the end of his tether. Under those pressing circumstances, and always homesick for his beloved…➝

    Trailer, info

  19. The Grand Illusion (1937) Jean Renoir
  20. The Grand Illusion 1937 poster

    At the height of World War I, the German ace aviator, Captain von Rauffenstein, shoots down the plane of the aristocratic French pilot, Captain de Boeldieu, and his co-pilot, the working-class civilian mechanic, Lieutenant Maréchal, during an air-reconnaissance mission. As the captured officers find themselves in the Hallbach POW camp…➝

    Trailer, info

  21. La belle équipe (1936) Julien Duvivier
  22. La belle equipe 1936 poster

    Those five are unemployed penniless workers. Together they win 100,000 Francs with the national lottery. Instead of sharing the money, they buy a ruin and build an open-air cafe. But difficulties come to split their friendly group apart: former wife, police tracking one of them (Spanish republican refugee), jealousy…

    Trailer, info

  23. The Lower Depths (1936) Jean Renoir
  24. The Lower Depths 1936 poster

    The winner of the Louis Delluc Prize as the most outstanding French photo-play of 1936, as selected by the Young Independent Critics of France (an organization and not a description.) The film treats the imprisoning hold of poverty; the disheartening odds of people rising from such social despair, and the…➝

    Trailer, info

  25. La bandera (1935) Julien Duvivier
  26. La bandera 1935 poster

    Pierre Gilieth has committed a murder in Paris. He flees to Barcelona, where he runs out of money. So he joins the Spanish Foreign Legion. He meets there two fellow countrymen, Mulot and Lucas. He tries to forget his fault… but Lucas’s friendship soon appears to be less unselfish…

    Trailer, info

  27. Crime and Punishment (1935) Georges Lampin
  28. Crime and Punishment 1956 poster

    Modern update of Dostoievski’s novel Crime and Punishment.

    Trailer, info

  29. L’Atalante (1934) Jean Vigo
  30. LAtalante 1934 poster

    When Juliette marries Jean, she comes to live with him as he captains a river barge. Besides the two of them, are a cabin boy and the strange old second mate, Pere Jules. Soon bored by life on the river, she slips off to see the nightlife when they land…➝

    Trailer, info

  31. La petite Lise (1930) Jean Grémillon
  32. La petite Lise 1930 poster

    Victor Berthier, a good man but also a very jealous one, killed his wife in a fit of jealousy. After serving a few years in a chain gang, he is released for good behavior. He feels very happy to be able to return to Paris and to meet Lise, his…➝

    Trailer, info

Best Poetic Realist Directors

  • Jean Renoir
  • Jean Vigo
  • Julien Duvivier
  • Marcel Carné
  • Jacques Feyder

Best Poetic Realist Films

  • L’Atalante (1934)
  • Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932)
  • La Grande Illusion (1937)
  • La Bête humaine (1938)
  • Children of Paradise (1945)

References and Further Reading